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Forget about Lonelygirl, Tay Zonday, or any of them — as of this week, the biggest grassroots viral video star to break out into big-time mainstream TV is Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw. At least that’s how I interpret the news that the X-Play show on G4, Comcast cable’s TV network for gamers, will be airing previews of Crowshaw’s Zero Punctuation video column on The Escapist game site. We profiled Croshaw a couple weeks ago, explaining how some of his crudely animated reviews on YouTube quickly became a phenomenon watched by millions of gamers. [digg=http://digg.com/gaming_news/Zero_Punctuation_G4_s_X_Play]
“It’s a licensing deal,” Croshaw told me via email from his home in Australia. “G4 gives The Escapist a bag of money to license the previews (The Escapist own the publishing rights to ZP, if you recall), and The Escapist passes on half the contents of the bag to me. It’s mainly been worked out by the behind the scenes backroom types. Zero Punctuation‘s reaching a wider audience and that’s cool with me.”
That last point is actually debatable: Last year, Variety reported that G4 attracts a paltry 125,000 viewers in prime time. A single Zero Punctuation episode, by contrast, attracts up to 1.15 million views, according to The Escapist’s Russ Pitts [see update below]. If anything, G4 probably needs Croshaw to reach a wider audience. In any case, he hasn’t watched G4, himself.
“We don’t get it over here,” he told me. “I know it’s a cable channel with a focus on geek culture, which seems fitting enough to me.” By way of introduction, I told him that it’s mostly known for being the home of X-Play co-hostess Morgan Webb, a gamer babe with enormous (if somewhat tacky) geek adulation, and showed him a video clip.
Croshaw’s only comment: “She has very broad shoulders, doesn’t she?”
He foresees some fan backlash as Zero Punctuation segments starts showing up on television. “I have weathered more than a couple of accusations of selling out since the deal was announced,” said Croshaw, “because if there’s one thing Internet nerds hate, it’s the things they like getting poached by the mainstream. Rest assured this isn’t going to bring about any changes in the videos themselves, unless I go insane, which I wouldn’t totally discount.”
In any case, it’s been a whirlwind ascent for Croshaw, who uploaded his first reviews to YouTube only last July, when he was “bored, unemployed, alone.” In addition to the G4 deal, his videos will also be featured next week at the industry’s premiere Game Developers Convention in San Francisco, and it’s not an exaggeration to say he’s already become the medium’s most popular critic, the first to plausibly claim “The Lester Bangs of Video Games” mantle. So what does he intend to do with such enormous influence?
“Encourage people to make better games, I guess,” he said. “The only way I know how.”
Update, 1/14: Pitts’ 1.15 million views per episode figure is taken from a January interview, and therefore shouldn’t be construed as him agreeing with my argument that Zero Punctuation probably has more viewers than G4. After publication, G4’s Brent Marcus contacted us and offered this figure: “G4 delivers nearly 30 million combined monthly impressions across all platforms.” However, Zero Punctuation generally plays one episode per week. With no apples-to-apples figures available, I leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions.